The Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning Commission decided Monday to rehear Tremont Temple’s application for demolition of its former sanctuary on Forsyth Street. The structure has sat empty for seven years. Recently, a willing buyer who wants to open a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise agreed to purchase the property’s 0.2 acre tract. Tremont Temple applied for permission to demolish the old structure. Along comes the Historic Macon Foundation to oppose the demolition, saying that the structure played a significant role in the civil rights movement in Macon and offered to match the seller’s offer. Subsequently, P&Z commissioners denied the demolition request in December.
That decision was improper on several levels. The P&Z did not rule on the specifics of the request, and while Historic Macon does good work in the community, it had ample time to negotiate with the church before another buyer entered the picture. The P&Z put itself in the middle of a willing buyer/seller situation and used its position to stop what many in the historic community believe is an improper use of the property. And there is a secondary reason for their opposition. They are afraid the Charles Henry Douglass House, which sits in disrepair right behind the church, will be next to go.
In preparing its request for a rehearing, the church went to the expense of hiring a structural engineer, from the firm of Kern & Co. LLC, whose report said that the building was in “danger of imminent collapse.” Piedmont Construction submitted an estimate of $673,000 just to stabilize the building.
Now the ball is in the P&Z’s court. It can rule as a separate issue whether a Dunkin’ Donuts is appropriate for that location and in what style it should be constructed, but it should get out of the way of the demolition. The handwriting is on the church’s shaky walls that the building will come down in one of two ways. Either it will be demolished in a planned and orderly fashion, or nature will continue to take its course and it will implode. The church has requested, if P&Z continues to deny its demolition request, that the commission “assume the liability for the structural failure of the building.”
The P&Z could wiggle out of the situation by standing its ground -- no matter how wrong -- and forcing the Macon-Bibb County Business Development Services, formerly the Department of Inspection and Fees, to condemn the property. That would let the P&Z off the hook, but it would further damage the commission’s credibility that has already taken a substantial hit.